Advertising Jargon That Aims to Mislead


As an advertising professional, I have often had to use phrases and headlines that stretched the truth a little. Sometimes, a lot. I have never lied, unless it was blatant for the sake of humor (beer so strong, the bar prices are in Braille). But I have most definitely have been "asked" to use some techniques that drew a fog over what is true and what is legally acceptable. These are terms used to deceive and mislead. And now, I'm featuring some of the most popular ones here.

Watch out for these. If they're being used, you should think hard about your purchase or do a lot more research.

"Never pay for a covered repair again"

I see and hear this one a lot in insurance commercials. Lately, it has been used in a commercial offering extended warranties on cars. And it is used in such a way that you think "Oh great, no more repair bills, I'm covered." Well, I'm afraid not. The key word here is "covered," and it renders the whole phrase useless. See, they don't tell you in the ad what is and is not covered. For all you know, the only repair that is covered is when the engine turns itself into a bowl of banana pudding. Saying you'll "never pay for a covered repair again" is like saying your umbrella will "keep you dry on the sunniest day." Well duh, of course it will. A covered repair, well, it's covered. Of course you don't pay for it. But WHAT is covered? Is anything covered that is actually important? Find out before you buy an insurance policy or warranty that has more holes in it than 100 lbs. of Swiss cheese.

"Compare at $XX"

Is there a more underhanded phrase in the advertising world? I don't think so. Do you know what this means? Well, it does not mean that this product was once $60 and is now $15. Not even close. It means that someone, usually an "expert" working for said company, thinks that this product or service may be worth that amount of money, or is comparable to other products selling at that higher price. It's used in infomercials a lot. "Buy this frying pan for $20, compare at $80!" It does not mean you're saving $60, it just means that someone, somewhere, thinks that the pan is similar to another pan that could have sold for $80. It's like putting an ad on Craigslist for your crappy old sweater and saying "compare at $100." It's a self-valuation, and therefore, meaningless.

"Buy 10 for $10"

It could be any variation of items for dollars, but the sign is misleading 99% of the time. Very, very rarely do you actually have to buy 10 items to get them for $1 each. They will simply ring up as $1 at the register, whether you buy four or five or even nine. The store is employing a simple tactic of misdirection. They want you focusing on picking out ten items rather than daring to buy just a few. And most of the time, as robotic consumers, we do what we're told and buy ten packets of rice or bottles of soda. If you do happen to buy a few, and they ring up as more expensive, just keep your eagle eye on the register and let the checkout person know you have decided against those items. But that happens once in a blue moon.

"Free trial" and "Risk-free trial"

Let's start with free trial. Most of the time, the free trial comes with a time period, after which you start paying for the service. For instance, a two-week free trial subscription to a newspaper, after which the credit card you provided will start getting dinged, automatically, for a certain amount of money. This is often called a "passive subscription." You do nothing; you start paying. You have to actively call and cancel to opt out of the full subscription before the trial ends, and that's when you get hit with "save sale" scripts and hard-sell techniques. Free trials may give you something free, but you are giving the manufacturer your personal information and credit card info, which is just as valuable to them as the product you get for nothing.

Now, moving on from the free, to the risk-free. What does that mean? This time, you're basically being told that if you buy something and you don't like it, then you can return it "risk-free." But be careful. Even though they say there's no risk, you're in muddy legal waters. There may be restocking fees, or you may have to jump through many hoops to get your money back. And you may have to wait quite a long time to see it. I usually stay away from any kind of trial unless it is a genuine free trial that requires no money up front.

"Just pay shipping and handling"

Again, another landmine you need to dodge. That phrase is loaded. No legitimate business can turn a profit by giving away product and only asking you to pay for postage. In these instances, which often accompany the free trial, you are paying for S&H up front with a credit card, and that information will be used to charge you for something else later on.


 Once upon a time, BOGO stood for Buy One, Get One free. Simple enough. Then, BOGO stood for Buy One, Get One 50% off. Now, BOGO can stand for almost anything. I’ve seen Buy One, Get One for $50; Buy One, Get One 20% off; and even this — BOGO* (Buy One, Get One 50% off by mail-in rebate!). Marketers love to use handy phrases that are well-known to consumers, and this is another good example. We all think we know what BOGO means, but it’s not a legal term, so it can stand for anything. Just keep your eyes wide open when you see a big BOGO sign — it may not be what it appears.


Ahhh, the asterisk. It's the marketer's friend and the consumer's enemy. You can hide a wealth of sketchy terms and conditions and nasty little "out" clauses behind the asterisk. For instance, in this case Free* could be followed by: "*Offer only available to residents of Alaska aged between 49-52 with a surname that begins with Z." Ok, extreme example, but I've seen similar exclusions. Sometimes it's only free if you buy another item of equal or greater value, which is back to the BOGO language. Sometimes it's free if you jump through hundreds of hoops and buy other products. Occasionally, rarely, it's actually free. But the asterisk does mean someone, somewhere, is missing out. The asterisk has taken a powerful word like free and made it about as trustworthy as a grandma with big eyes, big ears, and very big teeth.

Know any other terms that trick you up? Let other Wise Bread readers know.

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Guest's picture

Up to X% Off. This phrase literally means nothing. I can sell you a $50 item at $50 and still be included in that phrase.